Early in Stanley Kubrick’s career, the then unknown director would team up with Kirk Douglas for a war movie the likes of which American audiences were not ready for.
In a post-World War II era of Hollywood war films focusing on heroism, action, and jingoism, Paths of Glory stood out for being the antithesis of that movement.
The grand adventures of John Wayne, the lighthearted musicality of South Pacific; war was being painted in a very different light from what it was like for those who fought it. In the period between the Second World War and the Vietnam War — as patriotism boomed and America felt itself on top of the world— cinematic celebration of the fighting men and women of the armed forces tended toward triviality.
Keep in mind that the public were mostly out of the loop about “shellshock” or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Veterans suffering from the debilitating mental strain of being in wartime conditions would typically be sent to a VA hospital where terrible treatments like lobotomy were utilized.
In 1946, a year after the war’s conclusion, documentarian John Huston released the film Let There Be Light; one of the earliest movies discussing the strain of PTSD. It was quickly suppressed by the government. The government and the public were riding a high and there was no reason to kill it with reality.
As stated above, it wouldn’t be until Vietnam that the effects of warfare on the human psyche would become a prevalent issue in public discourse.But that would not stop Stanley Kubrick from making a powerful anti-war film in a period lacking the realism we take for granted nowadays in our media.
Focusing on France in World War I and showing not only the horrors of the battlefield but the attitude of those behind the scenes, 1957’s Paths of Glory was banned in France, on U.S. military bases, and in other parts of Europe for being too real.
The film almost immediately shows how little it cares for treating its topic lightly when a character is talking to himself and shaking in the trenches. His commanding officer asks what is wrong and another service member responds, shellshock. The commanding officer scoffs at that, believing shellshock a synonym for cowardice. He even beats the man for shaking in his boots.
The commanders don’t care for the men in the trenches, the people not sitting behind a desk. General Paul Mireau (played by George Macready) only cares about one thing: to take what has been coined “The Anthill”, a heavily fortified German emplacement across from no man’s land. He doesn’t care how many men must die in the wanton assault; he sees the men as statistics. Never having to join in the fight himself, he has little regard for the bravery and sacrifice of the battlefield.
Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, who is forced to lead the General’s assault. He knows the General is heartless and understands that too many men are going to die in what will likely be a failure. As his men are gunned down the realization of a suicide run dawns on the survivors and the Frenchmen retreat to the trenches.
During this sequence Kubrick displays the grit and horror of the battlefield in ways that are rare for the period. Though obvious ragdolls, bodies fly about. Corpses litter the ground. Explosions and gunfire pepper the battlefield. War without Hollywood glorification or glamor in other words.
The retreat of Colonel Dax’s men becomes the focus of the story. General Mireau sees the retreat and orders artillery to shoot at the “cowards”. The artillery men refuse and the General immediately calls on Colonel Dax and a handful of his men to report to headquarters for a trial. If found guilty, the men would be executed for cowardice.
The intensity of Paths of Glory ratchets up as three men who retreated from combat when all seemed lost are put on trial. Taking place in an opulent French chateau where the command structure enjoy expensive dining and comfortable quarters (as opposed to the trenches which General Mireau makes light of upon his inspection), the skewed treatment of the three men, defended by Colonel Dax (who happened to be in law before the war), is gut wrenching.
Rarely does a movie make you want to stand up and punch something, but Paths of Glory is rife with hopelessness in its second half. While the trench could be an ugly gravesite, the chateau acts as a mausoleum that is somehow more disgusting. Everything to the command structure is about politics with complete disregard for human lives.
To say Paths of Glory is powerful is an understatement. It’s haunting. The idea of generals being nothing more than politicians playing chess with human lives in the safety of their quarters has been explored before, but never to Paths of Glory’s effect.
A movie this depressing, though, is the kind I can only watch once. I love explorations of the dark side of human nature and realist approaches to horrible events.
But there are a few movies and other media like Paths of Glory that are so depressing, lacking any sort of happiness or levity, that I can only watch them once because they weigh on me so much. That’s a point in favor of the film; good films should make you think about and evaluate the world in new ways. Films should make you feel emotions.
Paths of Glory is not a fun movie — it’s a statement movie. The holy trifecta of great direction, fantastic acting, and a wonderful script makes the statement stick but the statement itself is so impenetrably dark it does not warrant seeing again.
Think of Paths of Glory and it will immediately call a negative feeling to mind. It will remind you of the unfairness of war both on and off the battlefield. And if that seed has been planted in your head, then Stanley Kubrick accomplished his mission.